Clifton Suspension Bridge is a widely celebrated piece of architecture. Despite passing beneath it along the A4 Portway road on countless occasions, I had never been up to the Clifton Down parklands surrounding it, nor walked, cycled or driven across it.
Until recently. One glorious sun-kissed Sunday in early May 2017 I photographed Bristol City’s final match of the season against Birmingham City. Birmingham won 1-0, thereby avoiding relegation, and veteran manager Harry Redknapp was generous to photographers in his whole-hearted celebrations.
After the match I decided to go in search of Clifton Down. This public space offers fantastic vistas over the bridge and the city.
I love Bristol. Its size and history holds an appeal which Cardiff can’t match. Growing up in a small Gloucestershire village roughly equidistant between the two cities, Bristol could have easily ended up being home rather than Cardiff. It feels like there might be an alternative version of myself living here. There’s probably a faint sense of ‘the grass is always greener’. As an Englishman living in Wales, you often look back over the bridge and wonder how things might have been, or might be different.
Driving in search of somewhere to park, I was struck by how continental Clifton appears. The architecture of Georgian terraced houses and sloping streets, the sophisticated street-side cafés, the gentle ambient burr of Sunday afternoon, the warm bright sunshine. It evoked memories of France. Even the most affluent areas of Cardiff don’t have this feel. Wiggling through Clifton, up and around and back again, finally I found a place to leave the car.
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Clifton Suspension Bridge is a feast for the eyes, and lens. (If ever there was subject which demanded a wide angle lens, this is it). The Avon Gorge, dramatic cliff faces, the A4 Portway road snaking below, the thick chunky brown river, bursting greenery of Leigh Woods to the north, the sloping sweep of the city and the landscape beyond to the south. If Bristol was a major American city, this place could be as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge. Staunch Bristolians might argue it already is.
The suspension bridge spans the Avon Gorge and River Avon, linking Clifton to Leigh Woods. It’s been a toll bridge since opening in 1864, which funds its maintenance. Famously based on an original design by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and contributed to by Sarah Guppy, the bridge is a Grade I listed building. Construction originally began in 1836 but funds ran out in 1843 and the project was only completed in 1864, five years after Brunel’s death. The bridge is built to a redesign by the less well-known names of William Henry Barlow and John Hawkshaw.
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On days like the one of this visit, the place is a magnet for locals and tourists, and great for street photography.
The observatory building gives extra height and a different aspect on the view, one uniquely via a cave within the cliffs.
You could play with the visual appeal of the place in different light and with willing subjects. Softer and lower sunshine would cast all sorts of dramatic shadows on the road and river below. Sunrises and sunsets over the city must be beautiful. How the sun’s descent steadily shunts across the sky over a full year must be a constant wonder for locals. A model or two would help to capitalise on all the leading lines and symmetries. The potential for long exposure and tilt-shifting of traffic below would be interesting to toy with, as well as the dramatic footage you could capture from above and below with a drone, if permitted.
Hopefully one day the Severn Bridge toll will be lifted, giving extra freedom to those in the West Country wanting to explore south Wales, as well as vice-versa. I for one would certainly visit Bristol more often if this was the case.
View and licence more images of Clifton Suspension Bridge and Bristol via the Composed Images photoshelter website.
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